Finding sources to cite is easy. Planning a paper is easy. Sitting down and writing the thing? Much harder, and though there’s no shortage of word processors, not all are well-suited to academic writing.
As someone currently working on my dissertation, I know this problem all too well. So I found five popular Mac applications commonly used for academic writing and reviewed each in order to see which excelled the most when it comes to writing college papers and dissertations.
Here’s what I found.
At just short of $45, Ulysses is one of the more expensive applications in this rundown. I reviewed version 2.0, which runs exclusively on 64-bit Macs running Yosemite. There’s also an iPad version ($19.99), which Bakari reviewed recently.
Ulysses is, like Desk and iA Writer, a markdown-oriented text editor. Markdown allows you to format text using a special syntax, rather than pressing a button in an application. The advantage of this is that it doesn’t break your workflow, and text written in MarkDown can be copied between applications without losing formatting.
Another advantage of Markdown is that it’s incredibly easy to learn, not just because we published a guide to it last year. Ulysses is different from other markdown editors in a number of ways that distinguish it from the pack.
Firstly, it allows you to separate texts into individual sections, each within their own writing space. This is handy if your university project is effectively an anthology of texts, as most dissertations are.
Secondly, Ulysses allows you to change the theme from a bright one, to a more subdued night-mode version which looks great when working in the dark. It also comes with a command palette that feels oddly reminiscent of Sublime Text 2, which allows you to navigate your document without endlessly scrolling, just like Vim.
Ulysses also makes it easy to set goals, which is handy when you’re unmotivated and trudging through the tedium of a literature review. Unfortunately it doesn’t natively support any major reference managers, such as EndNote and Zotero, and it doesn’t allow you to embed images or graphics.
Despite these limitations, it’s a perfectly adequate markdown editor, and one that lends itself favorably to academic applications.
iA Writer Pro ($20)
I’m a fan of iA Writer. We reviewed the non-pro version of it back in 2013 and it immediately became my writing application of choice. Why?
The app is markdown-based, so you can add formatting as you write without getting distracted or having your writing pane filled with superfluous toolbars and ribbons. It also allows you to focus on the writing, as it puts the text in the center of your screen and a simple, readable typeface contrasts with the austere, white background.
That’s the cheaper, non-pro version. I’ve since moved on to the professional version, and I’m convinced it too is an excellent choice for markdown aficionados tasked with academic writing.
iA Writer Pro comes all the same features of the cheaper version that allow you to focus on the writing, but brings with it a ‘night mode’ theme, which is great for late night work.
It also allows you to drill-down on your text and identify parts of your writing you can remove and refactor, such as adverbs, verbs, and prepositions. Given academic writing strongly emphasizes conciseness and precision, this is really helpful.
But iA Writer Pro is lacking some features that are helpful when it comes to academic writing. It doesn’t support third-party plugins, which makes it hard to import your citations in from Zotero, or any other reference manager. It also only lets you to work one document at a time, unlike Ulysses’s multi-sheet approach to document editing.
Despite those drawbacks, it’s only $20 and makes it easy to be focused and productive, and is therefore worth a consider.
Scrivener 2 ($45)
Scrivener is an inexpensive application with an excruciatingly steep learning curve. It’s commonly used by people working in the creative industries, and has found a niche as a tool for writing screenplays and scripts. But despite this pedigree, it is also worth considering for your next academic paper.
Scrivener, like Ulysses, lets you break your document into manageable chunks, and tackle them one at a time. Editing is done through a graphical interface, with formatting added through the application, rather than using Markdown syntax.
But perhaps the killer feature of Scrivener is its ‘cork board’. This allows you to manage, collect, and collate resources you might want to use in your paper, such as images, notes and references.
Scrivener supports a handful of popular third-party bibliography applications, which means you don’t have to adjust your system of managing citations and references. It also allows you to create snapshots – or versions – of your text, and revert back to them when you want to return to an earlier form of your work. This is similar to how Git works, which is a version control system used by programmers.
However, Scrivener lacks the sleek, distraction-free aesthetics of iA Writer and Ulysses, which makes it less than ideal for long writing sprints where your focus might wander. It’s also rather expensive, and takes a few hours (and a lot of reading) to fully get to grips with.
Microsoft Word 2016 Preview Edition (Free)
It’s hard not to talk about word processors, and not mention Microsoft Word. It’s the incumbent, and has been for a couple of decades now. Go to any university, and you’ll find Microsoft Word is the de-facto word processor. This due to that fact that it’s well understood, supported by Microsoft, and works well with other the packages in the Microsoft Office family.
Microsoft recently released the preview version of Word 2016, and is currently available as a free download before being publicly released.
This latest version represents the biggest change to Microsoft Word on OS X for almost 5 years. It comes with a sleek new aesthetic that makes it feel like the modern, premium word processor it is. For once, you’re going to want to write with Word.
But as a tool for writing Academic papers, how does it stand up? Well, it’s not a distraction-free editor like iA Writer is, but that’s fine. It makes up for that by being well-rounded and complete, boasting all the features any university student or academic could possibly need.
One of the most compelling features for any student is its built-in citation manager, which offers many of the features of Zotero, and can produce references in APA, MLM and Chicago style.
Unlike iA Writer Pro and Ulysses, Word allows you to insert and embed figures and graphics, and create charts that underscore the points you make.
This makes it one of the more compelling packages for academic writing. The only problem is that when it exits the beta phase, it will ultimately cost a good chunk of change. This free version will eventually cease to work, so you’ll have to purchase Word as part of the Office 2016 release if you want to keep the functionality you’ve gotten used to. In the Apple Store, Office 2011 costs $139.95, so expect Office 2016 to cost something approaching that.
It’s also worth noting that beta applications can ship with bugs that might end up destroying all your hard work. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to make regular backups if you decide to use it.
Pages is part of iWork, Apple’s flagship productivity suite. Apple made it available free of charge to anyone who purchased Mac on or after October 1, 2013. Everyone else can purchase it for $19.99 on the Mac App Store, which is pretty good for a fully-fledged word processor.
As a tool for getting words on a page, it’s solid. It comes with a number of templates for academic writing. However, these overwhelmingly are geared towards a style of academic writing that’s more common in the American university system, than in the British and Antipodean ones. That said, it’s easy enough to tweak a template, and formatting text in Pages is simple enough for this not to be too much of a barrier.
Pages also supports academic citations through EndNote, a perfectly competent though expensive reference manager, with a license costing around $250. The closest free alternative, Zotero, hasn’t released a plugin for iWork and given the niche status of Apple’s iWork when it comes to productivity software, I doubt they ever will.
Pages can also produce incredible graphics and charts with a button’s press. This makes it ideal for those writing papers with a somewhat data-driven emphasis.
For those on a tight budget, it remains the best option, and poses a serious challenge to the likes of Scrivener and Ulysses.
No Surprises Here
It should come as absolutely no surprise that the two packages I’m ultimately going to recommend are ones made by Microsoft and Apple; both giants in what they do. Pages and Word are just too complete and functional to not recommend, and offer the most value for money (at least while Word is free).
As a close second, I’d also recommend iA Writer Pro, which despite lacking a number of killer features like EndNote integration and bibliography management, offers the best writing experience of any application listed in my opinion.
What do you use to write your academic papers? Leave me a comment below and we’ll chat.
Image Credits: student with laptop Via Shutterstock